I went to a launch party last night for James O’Keefe’s new book Breakthrough: Our Guerrilla War to Expose Fraud and Save Democracy. As all the world knows, O’Keefe performed an important public service by exposing ACORN for the partisan voter-fraud-enabling sewer that it is. But as Breakthrough shows, he has been tirelessly devoted to [...]
by Eric Simpson
The New York Philharmonic performs Luigi Dallapiccola's Il Prigioniero; photo by Chris Lee
The opening bars of Prokofiev's first violin concerto always remind me of the start of the Sibelius concerto. Both begin sotto voce, with the violin wandering through a lyrical melody over a string tremolo. Both have a searching quality, but whereas the Sibelius broods with lingering regret, the Prokofiev offers a sense of hope.
That sense of hope came through in Lisa Batiashvili’s stirring and visceral performance with the New York Philharmonic on Saturday night. “Ease,” for which performers are so roundly praised, is not a word I would use in describing her playing. I don't mean to say that she struggled with the piece's technical challenges, because she most certainly did not; what I mean is that she doesn't toss off a concerto with minimal effort as though it were a mere trick. I heard her play the Brahms concerto with the Dresden Staatskapelle earlier this year, and my reaction then was the same: She is keenly attuned to the music's emotional urgency, avoiding the nonchalance into which performers of all kinds are too often content to sink.
The first entrance is marked sognando, “dreaming,” and so it was. Here and elsewhere she displayed a masterful command of her instrument’s range of colors. She began ethereal but warm, as though through gauze, with moments of bursting clarity, and an occasional growl. The scherzo was exceptionally witty, and the finale began with a note of mischief, as she drew out a stretched, steely tone. Harshness of sound is merely one of many options on her palette, and she is fearless in employing it. There are hundreds of violinists capable of producing crystalline tone for thirty minutes. There are only a handful who have the courage to let a bit of grit come into the sound, and among these Ms. Batiashvili is prominent.
Alan Gilbert, leading the Phil, did not add a whole lot to the Prokofiev. He found his voice somewhat through the brass in the scherzo, but there were minor ensemble issues in the first movement, and there was little character in the last. He seemed at times to be holding the soloist back.
The rest of the program was Luigi Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero, premiered in 1949. The one-act (twelve-tone) opera follows the experience of a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition during the reign of King Philip II. Operagoers will think of Verdi’s Don Carlo, with its grandiose portrayal of a public auto-da-fé, but it has more in common with Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, exploring isolation and the psychology of torture.
The piece ducks in and out of tonality, and even in its full-on serialist stretches it’s not as difficult to listen to as, say, some of Schoenberg’s later work. My opinion was apparently not shared by some audience members, who left at a rate of about one couple per minute. The opera is anchored by tonal pockets and motifs that offer little islands of respite from the confusion. The jailer’s descending three-note refrain of “fratello!” is particularly haunting; it is both a greeting and a taunt, and offers the prisoner his only human contact apart from the disturbing exultation of the chorus outside. To the audience it offers a marker to which we hold fast as confusion rages all around.
The chorus, James Bagwell’s Collegiate Chorale, was in excellent voice, singing with a power that felt downright oppressive—perfectly appropriate given the subject. As the jailer and Grand Inquisitor (who may or may not be one and the same), the tenor Peter Hoare was a treacherous confidant, needling his captive with news of revolution and tempting him to escape, before revealing that hope itself was the final torment. He was charismatic, but sounded slightly pinched and did not always hit the center of the note. The baritone Gerald Finley, in the title role, took a scene to warm up, but thereafter achieved a dark, full sound and brought in just a hint of strain to some of his more desperate pleas. His final, lingering question, "la libertà?," was harrowing as he considered the possibility that going to the stake may indeed lead to his salvation. The strongest vocal performance of the evening belonged to the soprano Patricia Racette, playing the prisoner’s disconsolate mother. Her peals of grief up top were sharp and impassioned, and in her lower register there was earthy foreboding. Rounding out the cast were the tenor William Ferguson and the baritone Sidney Outlaw, giving fine performances as a pair of priests lost in theological debate.
Mr. Gilbert, all this while, seemed an entirely different conductor. He brought remarkable clarity to the score, skillfully guiding the listener through some exceptionally difficult musical territory. I will freely admit that I do not always have an overwhelmingly positive reaction to atonality, but this is a powerful work and it was given a superior performance. Singers and players were completely in sync, and Mr. Gilbert made perfect sense out of Dallapiccola’s structured disorder.
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Is the college admissions process fair? That’s been the question of this year’s college admission season, with articles like Suzy Lee Weiss’s Wall Street Journal Op-Ed “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me” and the Fisher v. University of Texas Supreme Court case challenging race-based Affirmative Action. As a recent high school graduate from a private school in New York, I have thought much about this topic.
I first read Weiss’s piece when it was published in March. Since then, it has gone viral and has received a mostly negative response, with Weiss criticized for having a sense of white entitlement (See “To (All) the White Girls Who Didn’t Get Into The College of Their Dreams”). Weiss was lucky enough to get into some of the Big 10 schools, including the University of Michigan and Penn State, but was upset she did not get into more elite schools. She felt discriminated against for being Caucasian. In her Wall Street Journal editorial, she wrote, “What could I have done differently over the past years? For starters, had I known two years ago what I know now, I would have gladly worn a headdress to school. Show me to any closet and I would’ve happily come out of it. ‘Diversity!’...If it were up to me, I would’ve been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, anything. Sen.”
As an Asian American, I too had my moments where I felt discriminated against during the college process. “Think of the college process as a pie,” my older Asian American peers told me. “There is only a tiny fraction of the pie that is reserved for Asians. They want you to fight for this slice: to die for it.”
I was not alone in having this experience. In a 2012 American Conservative essay, “The Myth of American Meritocracy,” Ron Unz argues that Asian applicants to elite schools are “The New Jews” in that they’re the new objects of discrimination:
As I experienced in my own college admissions process and witnessed elsewhere, despite the fact that more highly-qualified Asian students try to grab a slice of the pie, its size remains constant.
Of course, like the generations of Jews who also worked against a quota system stacked against them, Asians today do not play the victim game. Instead, they largely accept such discrimination as another challenge to overcome. To quote Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
When I received my college acceptances, having been rejected by two competitive institutions and waitlisted at one, I first believed that my older peers had been right: I thought I had failed and that like Weiss, someone else had “taken my spot.” My parents eventually convinced me to move on: I was only competing with my own expectations of myself. So far, it seems they were right. All the people that I’ve spoken to who have been through their first year of college have said, even if they didn’t enroll at their first choice school, that they ended up “where they belong.”
Besides, all of this talk about college admissions, who got in where, and elite colleges misses the point. At my high school graduation, one of the student speakers spoke about the pressure to succeed and its negative consequences. We have all seen this: someone cheating on a test or relishing in the plight of others or complaining publicly about not getting into the school of his or her dreams.
Rather than obsessing about our school’s rank, we should work to prove ourselves worthy of the education that we will receive. The point of getting a college education is to prepare oneself to be an engaged citizen. We have to make sure to do our part for society. Don’t dwell on rejection: make the most of where you end up.
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I am contemplating the train wreck revolving around the revelations about our National Security Agency’s appetite for spying on U.S. citizens, along with the train wreck that swirls around the revelations about the deployment of the IRS for partisan vengeance, along with the train wreck that is the fiscal, administrative, and, ultimately, medical catastrophe called [...]
I just caught up with Charles Murray’s brave and perspicacious column at NRO about Jason Richwine. I know memories are short, but the outrageous story of how Mr. Richwine was hounded out of his job at the Heritage Foundation by a gaggle of PC witch-hunters last month is worth bearing in mind. His own account [...]
Ask someone to name a few locales that are important to contemporary art and they’re likely to give you the usual suspects—New York, Paris, Berlin. Rarely would their thoughts lead them south of the Mason-Dixon line. “Currents: Recent Art from East Tennessee and Beyond,” now on view at the Knoxville Museum of Art, is a reminder that the area that gave us Beaufod Delaney (TN), Jasper Johns (GA), and the Black Mountain College (NC) is still tuned in to the art world today.
Having grown up in Knoxville, I’ll be the first to say that KMA’s offerings are a mixed bag that range from a moving exhibition of David Bates’s post-Katrina paintings to far less notable shows which usually sacrifice quality for a heavy emphasis on the regional. No doubt this variability comes with the territory of being a small art museum in a flyover state. That being said, in recent history the KMA has done an excellent job using its resources to bring quality art to East Tennessee including an Ai Weiwei solo show, a pleasing collection of contemporary Eastern European art, and this ongoing exhibition.
The collection of roughly two-dozen works (which continues to grow) has been diligently assembled by curator Stephen Wicks and is a diverse and engaging sample of contemporary work. A wide range of media is represented in the show, though the focus is primarily on painting, sculpture, and photography. While “Currents” is meant to have a local focus, many of the artists on display have only tenuous connections to the area (almost all now work in one of the traditional art centers of the world). Nonetheless, this is a strong body of contemporary work that is much needed in the Southeast.
Layers are of paramount importance to “Currents,” manifesting themselves in different forms throughout the show. The best photograph in the exhibit is undoubtedly David S. Allee’s Stadium Light (The Bronx, N.Y.) (2002). Peering across subway tracks through a gap in the walls of the old Yankee stadium, Allee uses ambient light and a long exposure to create movement. Spectral banners flap in the breeze while faceless patrons in the distance walk towards the exits of the emptying field. Our eye wanders from the emanating light of the baseball diamond to the blur of a car passing under the tracks and we squint as we try to make out the driver. Here, transportation, infrastructure, and diversion are laid one on top of the other and the viewer is cast as voyeur, peering through the nooks and crannies of concrete and steel to try and catch a glimpse of the eternally blurred lives that move throughout the frame.
Exuding dark undertones and working in a different medium, Ulf Puder’s Baustopp (2010) similarly deals with layers of structures. An incomplete rail project (baustopp itself means that construction has been halted) cuts through the center of a small group of buildings—run down houses and an old church precariously balanced on the edge of a cliff. Hectic diagonals and the looming gap in the center of the track lend a sense of foreboding to the constantly-unstable scene. Puder has assembled his painting piece by piece, layer by layer, much as the dilapidated structures that are his subjects have been reworked as needed—new shutters here, a patch for the wall there. Puder’s work stayed with me for some time after leaving the show, and his smart choice of colors, strong verticals, and magnificent technique are reminiscent of John Dubrow if he painted in Leipzig instead of New York.
The abstract works in the show are less strong, but Giles Lyon’s Empire (1997–2009) is an explosion of color and texture that draws the viewer in, lending itself to endless new discoveries as we explore the oversized canvas. Organic rainbow forms crash into one another, fighting for dominance in a field overlaid with limbs of greens and violets, themselves sprouting fractals which dissolve into the edges of the work. All this is covered with small pools of paint that grow out of the canvas—some several inches high. Many of these have been cut away at places to reveal the layered paint inside—sedimentary art that exposes the developed history of the piece. These mountains and valleys create a complex topography across this aesthetic map where red-orange canyons are bisected by periwinkle rivers in a truly engaging work.
Not everything in the show is strong—A Type of Magic (2008) poorly experiments with layers and comes off as amateurish next to Lyon’s work. Similarly, collage-esque prints by Wade Guyton look outdated, reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines from the last century. Still, there is plenty to enjoy here. Imaginative sculptures by Chris Jones take inspiration from traditional stories and American history, putting an environmental spin on them in a move that has gained popularity recently. Also strong is Ridley Howard’s Starry Carpet (2005)—a painting of a couple in a cold embrace in a hotel hallway—which renders the viewer uncomfortable both in its sterility and the sense of loss that permeates the work. With a perspective set just around the corner, we feel guilty having caught the subjects’ in the hallway—an empty moment with its pseudo intimacy. Claims of locality aside, “Currents” is an excellent show that is well worth the trip should you find yourself in East Tennessee.
“Currents: Recent Art from East Tennessee and Beyond” opened at the Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, Tennessee on November 9, 2012 and is an ongoing exhibition.
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by Eric Simpson
Liberal education and the failure of America's colleges to provide it have been discussed frequently in the pages of The New Criterion. Traditional core curricula have largely been abandoned in favor of unfocused, individualized programs of personal interest, especially since the latter half of the twentieth century. Cultural erudition has been replaced by "cultural sensitivity," to the detriment of our students and our society. Joseph Epstein, a frequent contributor to The New Criterion, joins Andrew Ferguson and Peter Robinson to discuss the problem in an interview for the Hoover Institution's Uncommon Knowledge series.
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Remember Malik Obama? He’s the Kenyan-born half brother of the more famous Obama. The men, who first met in 1985, are not close, but each served as the best man at the other’s wedding. Malik has what The Daily Caller delicately calls “a checkered past.” That’s not the President’s fault, of course, any more than [...]
Like most sentient adults, between my bouts of general alarm at the lurching incompetence of the Obama administration I have been enjoying little nibbles at the cornucopia of Schadenfreude it offers. Particularly amusing are the parallels between Obama’s response to some of the recent scandals that have plagued his administration — above all, the still-unfolding [...]
by Eric Simpson
Yannick Nézet-Séguin; photo: Chris Lee
On Saturday night, Yannick Nézet-Séguin wrapped up his inaugural year as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In all, it seems the first run must be considered a smashing success: In his first year he has won over the critics, the audiences, the city, and, most importantly, the orchestra's musicians. His accession also just happened to coincide with the centennial of Leopold Stokowski's tenure with the orchesra, a point which has been played up steadily (The concert's Playbill cover, which featured a triptych of Yannick in rehearsal above a similar but faded spread of Stokowski, seemed excessive). Saturday's program was originally intended as a celebration of the legendary conductor, but ended up having to serve double duty as a tribute to former music director Wolfgang Sawallisch, who passed away in February.
Sawallisch, who led the orchestra from 1993 to 2003, was particularly revered as an interpreter of Bruckner, Schumann, and Strauss, and the piece chosen to honor his memory was the third movement of Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in C Major. The famous Philadelphia strings sounded as warm as I have ever heard them, and Yannick's conducting was free-handed and sentimental. He shaped the piece delicately, and in a nod to the great Leopold he did so without a baton.
The other notable Stokowski-ism of the evening was the decision to place Janáček’s Sinfonietta on the first half of the program, with the concerto and the lighter fare on the second (though really going “full Leopold” would require an even heavier piece before intermission). The Sinfonietta is especially brass-heavy, and so it was problematic that the brass sounded timid (not a word I'd expect to use when describing fourteen trumpets), particularly in the first and third movements. It was, however, a finely contoured reading, and brought out the diversity of Janáček’s palette.
Gil Shaham played the Brahms violin concerto with that clear, consistent tone and technical ease that are his calling cards. The first movement was in fact too easy; one shouldn’t have to scrape through it, to be sure, but it is an intense and difficult emotional journey. He was cautious with it from the opening run—clean, but tame. The second movement was better, lyrical and sentimental, and the third was exceptional in a particular way: It is marked allegro giocoso, and that second word is too often ignored. There was playful humor in this rendering. Yannick’s conducting throughout the concerto was nuanced, detailed, and wonderfully atypical. The orchestral introduction to the second movement positively bloomed.
Mr. Shaham’s encore was the Loure from Bach’s E-major partita. Its melody is so sweet and lyrical, it is easy to forget that it is in fact a sprightly dance. This was among the more upbeat performances I have ever heard of it, and he added some charming ornamentation on the repeats.
To close, they presented three of Dvořák's Slavonic Dances. Nos. 1 and 8 were appropriately exuberant and bombastic, and in between them No. 2, slow and melancholy, was exceptionally sensitive. Yannick is no stoic on the podium. While he occasionally gives a performance that feels overwrought (Bach's St. Matthew Passion from earlier this season comes to mind), I have yet to hear him do anything half-way. The result, more often than not, is either explosive excitement or rich tenderness; in this trio of dances we heard both.
Following the programmed concert and a short break, Yannick joined four orchestra musicians for Brahms’s piano quintet in F minor. As he admitted beforehand, he is not the pianistic equal of either of his recent predecessors, Christoph Eschenbach and the aforementioned Maestro Sawallisch, but his playing was intelligent and shapely. The group's ensemble was impeccable, their sound was lush, and they had the same freedom that had characterized the rest of the concert. Remarkably, the house was still just over half full when the quintet began at about 10:30.
With the inaugural season out of the way, the grandiose historical comparisons will hopefully subside; Yannick was not brought in to be a new Leopold Stokowski or Eugene Ormandy. He has strengths of his own, and already looks to be playing to them, programming heaps of choral works and occasional operas in concert. Given his age and his talent, he certainly has a chance to become a very important conductor in this orchestra's history, but if he does, it will have to be on his own terms. Once the Stokowski talk dies down, I look forward to watching him carve his own path over the coming years—hopefully without any goofy transcriptions of Bach.
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( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)
In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
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